Nirvana liner notes

On Sunday, January 30, 1994, Kurt Cobain walked into Robert Lang Studios in northern Seattle and recorded the first song in this album. It would be Kurt's final session with Nirvana, and he made it count. He was also late, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had been at Langs for two days waiting for Kurt using time to fill tape with some of Dave's songs. But when Kurt finally rolled up on the third day, with no particular explanation, the real work was done in minutes.

Nirvana had already performed "You Know Your Right" in concert on October 23, 1993, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago - and fired it around on soundchecks that fall, under different names ("Auto Pilot," "On a Mountain"), with touring guitarist Pat Smear Strangely, two nights after that Aragon show, Kurt practically denied even writing the song. "I don't have any new songs right now," he told me. "I have absolutely nothing left. I'm starting from scratch for the first time and I don't know what we're going to do." That Sunday at Lang's was Kurt's first formal recording date with Nirvana in nearly a year since the In Utero sessions with Steve Albini in February of '93. The band played all day but finished only this one song.

It was enough. Kurt Krist and Dave connected with a fierce telepathy tearing through "You Know Your Right" in one live take. Kurt then put down a few vocal tracks and a little extra guitar. There was no need for more. "You Know Your Right was a perfect storm, consummated with prophetic urgency and - although it seems crazy and cruel to say it now - something that sounds a lot like joy, the kind you get when a band has its whipped-raw back to the wall but plenty of fuck you left., ready to fly. You could drown in the black rains of distortion and sarcasm: 'Things have never been so swell/And I have never been so well.' We Know now that everything was wrong and getting worse.

But you can live in this noise too: In Kurt's prayer-bell harmonics, plucked from behind the bridge of his guitar in monastery echo, in the spears of feed-back and the saving blaze of the chorus, where Kurt belts and holds the single word pain in one long murderous breath; in the brotherly lock of Krist's marching bass and Dave's fighting drums; and in the diamond-hard melodies that always cut through the chaos.

To Kurt music was shelter, because he never enjoyed or truly knew any other kind as a child, raised in a broken home, and an isolated uprooted teenager. On Nirvana's 1990 Sub Pop single 'Sliver,' he turned a mundane slice of boyhood - getting dropped off with his grandparents for a night of mashed potatoes and television - into searing flashback, acute memories of desertion intensified by the mounting tensions in Kurt's vocals the grainy doubled harmonies; the way he jumps into a higher strained register. Ever as a star, Kurt never made peace with the material rewards that hit him like a ton of bricks. "If there was a rock star 101 course, I would have liked to take it", he said that night in Chicago. "It might have helped me."

Kurt recognized the power of myth, of a juicy twisted truth: He long claimed that he really lived a time under that bridge in the first line of "Sonething in the Way" on Nevermind. But Kurt slept in abandoned buildings and on a long line of coaches, in Aberdeen and Olympia, Washington, on hos way to Nirvana. "His thing was, build your own world." Krist once said of Kurt. "Wherever he lived he'd have all this stuff on the walls, drawings or music or things he had collected." The floods of impulse - lyrics, letters, artwork - that he poured into his journals; the songs he wrote to put on records; the shows and tour-van rides; those three-and-a-half minutes of "You Know Your Right" at the end of January, 1994 - for Kurt, that was home.

The absolute magic and democracy of rock & roll is that anyone with a good hook and a fighting heard can change the world overnight. Kurt did it twice: on September 24, 1991, the day Nevermind, Nirvana's second album went on sale and loudly announced that Michael Jackson was toast and rock was a weapon again: and on April 8, 1994, when Kurt's body was found dead by his own hand, in a room over his garage in Seattle. The gaping hole he left in the belief of Rock & Roll saves lives is still there. So is the tear of going all the way that paralyzed so much of the music ever since.

But this record is about what happened before, and between, the turning points. It tells us how Kurt was reborn, and bloomed, inside his writing and singing. And it makes brutally clear how Kurt and Krist - bonded since high school in Aberdeen - and Ohio born Dave, a D.C.-hardcore veteran who joined on the eve of Nevermind, made the music a living thing, along with those who passed through the early bedlam: guitarist Jason Everman, drummers Aaron Burckhard, Chad Channing, Dale Crover of the Melvins and Mudhoney's Dan Peters. "All the albums I ever liked," Kurt said, "were albums that delivered a great song, one after another: Aerosmith's Rocks, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black by AC/DC." That's exactly what you get on Nirvana.

Rightly, the last great song Kurt wrote was followed by the first. "About A Girl," track three on Nirvana's 1989 debut album, Bleach, is a conflicted love song draped in spidery jangle and hung on a bewitching see saw melody, invented on night after Kurt spent hours listening non-stop to Meet the Beatles! Kurt later complained that Nirvana had complained that Nirvana had not done enough with the power and quiet, that had waited too long - until Dumb and All Apologies on In Utero to show how much he loved and learned from the Beatles and R.E.M. But in the clean swing of 'About A Girl' and the Gregorian garage spell of Kurt's double tracked singing, with that extra haunted vocal floating just over his shoulder, Nirvana provoked that punk and grunge were very small words for the pop in Kurt's head.

The amazing thing about these songs, and the recordings, is the force of subversive detail, especially on Nevermind; the tidal crash of Dave's tom-tom roll at the front of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the literal sound of a revolution at birth; Krist's watery bass intro to 'Come As You Are', and the way Kurt reconfigures the word memory with a long Spanish sigh at the end as if hypnotized by need; the whiplash contrast in "Lithium" between Dave's jazzy restraint in the verses, stinging cymbal, the one two doorknock of his kick drum; and the power-trio-Avalanche in the chorus. Kurt transcribed the uproar of his life into words and music, with care often over time. Song titles changed, the meat of an arrangement could turn from one rehearse to the next. Krist remembered first playing In Bloom at practices, ' like a Bad Brains song. But then Kurt went home and hammered it. When Kurt was done, he called Krist and played the song over the phone. The nuclear sugar inside had come out.

Success made Kurt distrust that gift. He responded with In Utero: made at breakneck speed with Albini, the king of live fuzzbox vérité. Nirvana cut the album in two weeks, Kurt sang most of his vocals in a day, in one seven-hour stretch. But the haste bothered him. Heart-Shaped-Box was given to R.E.M. producer Scott Litt for a remix. Even after the album was released in September, 1993, as Nirvana played the songs on tour. Kurt openly spoke of his disappointment: "Definitely Pennyroyal Tea - that was not recorded right. I know that's a strong song, a hit single." Litt remixed Pennyroyal Tea for a 1994 release, but Kurt's death ended all promotion for the album, and the single was canceled Eight years later. Litts treatment is finally on record, and we can hear Pennyroyal Tea the way Kurt wanted to hear it.

Kurt also felt that with In Utero, he had worn out the soft/loud dynamic in his writing, gutting it of all worth and fun. He was wrong. "Heart-Shaped Box" is an explosive tangle of devotion and exhaustion in the heat and worry jammed into the sharp sudden shout 'Hey! Wait' the raw hopeful are of Kurt's guitar break in 'Rape Me', the jolt from droning surrender in the verses to full-throttle violation in the chorus comes with a cleansing defiance. And it's worth noting that 'Dumb' was first recorded as an electric trio whisper for the BBC in the fall of '91, before Nirvana-mania. Here, with the combined melancholy of cello and Kurt's vocal harmonies, the song carries the added weight of those two years with a cracked-feather grace. "I think I'm dumb, maybe just happy": Kurt was never the former , still aching from the latter.

A confession, I did not watch the original broadcast of Nirvana's performance on MTV Unplugged. I have never seen it on video. I don't need to. I was there, at the Sony Studios in New York on November 18, 1993, and I keep that hour in my head, with a clarity unspoiled by jumping camera angles and commercial breaks, the garlands and candlelight, the hushed strength of Krist, Dave, Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston; the hint of dare in the way Kurt opened the show with "About a Girl" ("This is off our first record. Most people don't know it.") and how "All Apologies, near the end, affirmed that early promise . And I recall my own gasp of recognition when I heard the slithering cobra guitar of "The Man Who Sold The World," David Bowie's 1970 reverie on power, celebrity and death. "I guarantee you I will screw this up" Kurt said. But he slipped into Bowie's silken ambiguity - and the unmistakable parallels to his own life - like second skin. Kurt did not sound bummed or bitten, just painfully wise, willing to laugh at himself and comfortable in a good song.

"It's easy to remember him being said," Dave told me last year, "But the things that I like to think about are his happiness, and how much he loved music, whether it was sitting in a living room and playing an acoustic guitar, or playing at the Off Ramp in Seattle. He really loved creating music."

This is the world Kurt built for himself, when the real world was not enough. Listen again if you thing you know it, listen loud if you don't know it yet. Then build your own.

David Fricke
New York City
October, 2002